Starlit Rambler - Adventure Travel Our Way
Park City, Salt Lake City, Dallas, Miami…..the stateside 4 AM start to the day ended with a 10:30 PM arrival in Cali, Colombia. The long day of flights held an overtone of sickly tired indifference with joyful beams of happiness escaping our eyes. Through exhaustion, we reached for the excitement of being in the beautiful countryside of Colombia. As we zealously attempted conversation in Spanish with our driver, he whisked us from the airport to Roldanillo. The mere 3 hour night drive further gave way to peering through the darkness at the nearly deserted highway, taking in the abundance of stars, and imagining what must fill the unseen landscape. These wistful moments of pure deliriousness were often interrupted by the jolting vehicle changing course to avoid farm animals, lightless overloaded motorbikes, and sluggish sugar cane transport trucks that pulled containers the lengths of some trains. Finally arriving in Roldanillo we were warmly greeted by the driver's family at his local restaurant, as we realized he was unsure where we would be sleeping for the night. Not having been communicated the whereabouts of our destination (and being the hour of the night), our loss of words were profound. Finding the optimism in the situation, we settled on completing the somehow challenging task of withdrawing necessary monetary funds from the nearby ATM. Just as the ATM decided to work properly so did the driver recall the whereabouts of our living quarters for the week.
The undesired 1:45am bedtime was an even harsher reality at 7:30am the following morning, when eager paragliding pilot’s eyes rested on my weary soul. Sleep deprived and sick I was welcomed to the day by launching ourselves off a perfectly good mountain in hopes of finding thermals to gain lift. Thermals consist of the sun’s heat releasing from the ground allowing free flight. Brad Gunnuscio (sivclinic.com), our paragliding instructor, has successfully done this for the past 21 years, being praised for his acrobatics in the air and winning many cross-country competitions among the best pilots in the world. Colombia came about as Brad encouraged us to join him, in this foreign land, which he has grown to love and know so well, proclaiming Roldanillo to be one of the best consistent thermalling sites in the world. After all the World Paragliding Championships are often held in Roldanillo! Brad taught Jeremy and I to paraglide just over two years ago at the Point of the Mountain in Utah and since then we have followed him to the Northwest of the U.S., Southwestern Mexico, and now Colombia. Lets just say he is the voice you want in your ear when you are learning to fly in strong thermals and recovering from “ simulated incidence” or maneuvers in the air. The man thoroughly knows the sport of paragliding and has proved to be a great instructor and friend.
Peering out of the backseat window our driver (Mauricio) speedily and precisely maneuvered up the Colombian mountainside in his 1994 Land Cruiser; this is the Colombia I want to see. Surprisingly there were many interested local pilot faces which met us at the top of the narrow dirt road leading to launch. Great to witness the sport taking off with the locals with only a few gringos to be seen. The day officially began as I ran backwards bringing up my paraglider, turning, taking four large strides, and leaving the ground just prior to its steep descent into the forest. The search for thermals began. If no thermals could be obtained I would have to quickly start making my way to the landing zone avoiding being trapped on the uphill side of the massive power lines. Success! Immediately followed by relief. One thermal led to many more. Before I knew it Jeremy, Chris, Mark, Clark, and Brad were in the air accompanying me. Together we hopped along cloud base, over the ridge lines, from thermal to thermal, and eventually landed our gliders down in the fields behind our beautiful farmhouse, Finca La Rioja. This vast lush productive exotic fruit farm is where we all would call home for the week. Two hours in the air, not too bad for a first day. Adding to a perfect beginning, we discovered Chris Hunlow, who is also an excellent pilot, instructor, and ingenious kind soul from Utah, is one of Starlit Rambler’s biggest fans. He admittedly has read every one of our blogs. We feel honored to know our journey and writings are influential and enjoyed in other people’s lives.
Our six days of paragliding were filled with important lessons on how to obtain lift through appropriate thermalling, judging winds at different altitudes as they constantly change throughout the day, and choosing safe landing zones (preferably near a road). Being bold yet extremely humble is the name of the game when utilizing free flight to share the sky with the birds. On Day two, there was a moment, after flying for three plus hours, I found myself alone in between the mountains and the farmland flats. Having crossed the valley from Roldanillo I began approaching the city Zarzal. There was only a distant view of other paragliding pilots. Already in my mind I was getting tired, unsure of my surroundings, and uncomfortable in the air alone, time to start looking for landing zones. Looking over I suddenly noticed several birds circling nearby, marking the location of a thermal used for energy saving and feeding purposes. As I joined the all time experts in their thermal, I began to appreciate my efforts in the air on another level. This same encounter has happened once prior while paragliding in Yelapa, Mexico. Here I felt a similar experience of simplicity, clarity in life, love for nature, beauty of all of earth's gifts, and thankfulness to be able to actively participate in such a beautiful reality.
Literally what other activity can a human hop from cloud to cloud, across many peaks harnessing the natural energy of the sun to take flight like a bird. Our days in Roldanillo gained a bit of a routine, often extremely rare in our gypsy lifestyles. However exceptions must be made in order to reach our desired goal: become more confident and efficient paragliding pilots. The daily routine went something like this: struggle out of bed exhausted from the day prior, eat eggs and fruit prepared by Mr. Hunlow, drive through the town of Roldanillo in route to the long steep mountain road to the launch, prepare our paragliders as we wait for conditions to become appropriate, launch ourselves off the mountain while immediately searching for thermals, discovering a thermal while riding it’s lift up to cloud base. Here, surfing on the base and edges of the clouds, we wait for our group to reform once again among puffy whiteness where water turns to gas. We fly from one western mountain peak to another gaining altitude before crossing the flat valley to another town several kilometers away. Cloud formations mark working thermals in the valley as we race gravity in search of new lift in hopes of reaching the east mountain range. The remainder of the day would include an escape from the sun and heat via “siesta”, swim in the pool, cold water shower, solo yoga practice. star gazing, obtaining food, and enjoying the company of others. Honestly I felt saddened as the week came to a close but how could one not with so much goodness all around.
Okay there were a few mis-events which occurred causing much humor among the group. Day 5, Clark and I landed in a restricted zone owned by a large sugar cane company. After waiting some time for our pick up by a road, I received a phone call from Jeremy saying that the gatekeeper of the property would not allow them entrance. Confusion followed and the inability to acquire a GPS point of our location in order to locate the exit point of the property. Walking a mile in the wrong direction to then walk two miles in the correct direction with heavy paragliders in the heat of the sun was defeating. However, the others waiting at the gate (Mauricio, Mark, Jeremy) proceeded to find ways to display the humor of our situation as they sat in the shade eating at a nearby restaurant. The smart ass text message request by Mark to take pictures for our blog led to an even smarter ass response by Clark and I. This response brought laughter and tears to their eyes as they tried not to chock on their food, serves them right! This sort of comical heckling became a daily occurrence among the group, bringing us closer together.
Another, more than noteworthy, comical event occurred on Day 6 after a 3 hour flight. Upon landing in a small cow pasture in the eastern mountains, Jeremy, Brad, and I packed up our gear and began walking through the farmlands toward the road. Colombia has been in a severe drought for a year due to El Nino which has caused many lakes to dry-out, daily water restrictions, and even harsher conditions in the far north where people are literally dying of thirst. As the three of us walked past many long eared cows, we approached a dry lake, with a fence jutting out into it's once liquid surface. Jeremy decided the walk around the fence, into the dried lake bed, was the path we should take. He tiptoed around the fence, calmly mentioning he sunk a little but if you move quickly it would be ok. Light as a feather I quickly made my way across the dry lake barely sinking with each step. As soon as I reached the other side I look back to the "oh no no no" of Brad as he sunk like a brick deeper and deeper into the depths of the soft lake bed. Laughing hysterically, Jeremy could only bring himself to film Brad, stuck in the mud, as I gave a lending hand taking the 70 lbs paraglider rig off his back. One at a time Brad slowly pulled his knee deep leg out of the oozy grey mud, clearly disgusted as he proclaimed his new status of "Swamp Thing." At this point the laughter was uncontrollable for all of us as we documented the moment swiftly sending photos to the rest of the group.
Now it would not be fare to go without further mentioning Mauricio, our local Colombian driver. Not only would he go out of his way to pick you up wherever you may have landed but would also take it upon himself to help in any way possible. There is not much better, in the realm of paragliding in a foreign country, than knowing you have a warm, smiling, familiar face coming to get you no matter what unknown place you land. We also had the joy of meeting his beautiful fiance, Jennifer. Jennifer and Mauricio showed us a true Colombian welcome by taking us to dinner several nights to enjoy local cuisine, hosting us at her families house for lunch, and finally inviting us to her cousins 15th birthday party. "La Quinceanera" is the appropriate Spanish term for this event that marks a major milestone of a girl becoming a woman in the latin culture. I would easily say the event is held at similar regards as a wedding and is unlike any 15 year old party in the States. As we were surprised by the bottles of liquor decorated with the birthday girl's name, so were the Colombians by the 6 white faces unsurely smiling brightly at them. Easy to say that we stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the crowds but that did not stop us from joining in on the dancing and festivities. By the end of the night all were impressed by the crazy leg dancing skills of Jeremy and potentially the lack of dancing skills but eagerness of Clark. The rest of us were for sure an anomaly as we drifted around the dance floor. There was definitely no short of fun and laughter, which further embellished the new found friendships amongst us all. Thank you Mauricio and Jennifer for all your efforts and hospitality, we look forward to reuniting!
When the week came to an end and all us pilots began to scatter our separate ways, it was clear that no one really wanted to say goodbyes. Instead we all kinda drifted off to one place or another on our own without expression of our wherabouts. It was the first time that this kind of departure that use to be my speciality did not sit well with me. Now I realize maybe how I made some others feel when I hated goodbyes so much, due to there inflicted sadness, that I chose to avoid the scenario all together. It was my way of dealing with the hardships I experienced in my childhood, in school, and constantly leaving familiarity. I am quite certain now that goodbyes are necessary for human closure and allow a reassurance of the brilliance of each others company along with appreciation for endeavors completed together. Maybe this is the difference in running away vs facing your life and finding satisfaction exactly where you are, which is the resolve I have discovered in my desired travels now. I no longer travel to run away but to explore, discover, experience, and live simply. That being said, I can only bring myself to saying “see you later” in genuine desire of life allowing our paths to cross once again. See you later must be the way of a gypsy heart or the sadness of departed relationships would be too much to bear.
Author: Rachelle McEwen
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